Women's rights all but invisible in Dongguan's crackdown on sex trade

Chang Ping says even those protesting against authorities' vice sweep care little for gender equality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 3:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 3:05am

Welcome to the Year of the Whores!" This subtitle mistakenly appeared two weeks ago on a BBC news programme reporting the start of the Year of the Horse. Now China's social media users are praising the broadcaster for its "vision".

As it turned out, on the first Sunday after the holiday, CCTV broadcast an "exposé" of the sex industry in Dongguan, in a departure from its usual fare. Hours later, 6,000 police officers raided nearly 2,000 saunas, karaoke lounges and other places of entertainment in the city, while authorities announced a sweeping three-month crackdown on prostitution.

Actually, Dongguan's flourishing sex trade is well-known; hardly any investigation was needed for CCTV to get the "news", and the authorities can stop pretending they were shocked into action. Still, the dramatic "exposé" was useful as a public campaign, to help the city's law enforcement officers strike fear into the hearts of the lawless. Many sex workers and their customers were duly filmed in secret or during the police raid, their "ugly" and "degenerate" lifestyle displayed for all to see.

The Chinese blogosphere promptly erupted. Long under the thumb of the censors, netizens saw their golden opportunity for mockery and protest. "CCTV is ruthless, but the world is full of love; let's work together, so cheer up, Dongguan!" "Dongguan, don't cry. Stay strong!" "We're all people of Dongguan tonight!" These and other slogans were wildly circulating on Sina Weibo.

These are, of course, expressions commonly used on mainstream microblogs to rally public support in times of disasters.

Notable lawyers and opinion leaders were tweeting alongside ordinary citizens. There were three common views.

First, many thought that by showing the faces of the sex workers and their customers with no technical editing, CCTV had trampled on the human dignity of the powerless in society. Second, with its track record of reporting lies, CCTV has sold its soul to the devil - conduct far worse than prostitutes who sell their bodies for money. Third, CCTV was shameless to have used sex scandals in an earlier campaign to vilify influential microbloggers.

Many of these protest messages were posted by men. Yet their attempt to stand up for women at the bottom of the social heap failed to win the support of Chinese feminists, who preferred to take the opportunity to start a debate on the sex trade and gender equality.

The feminists dared to point out the hypocrisy of these men who, on the pretext of protecting the weak, were in fact only protecting their right to buy sex. The use of phrases like the "Year of the Whores" was too flippant and "Dongguan, stay strong!" had little to do with standing up for the rights of the dispossessed, they said.

The men opposed the government's intrusion into the sex market, and called for the legalisation of prostitution. The feminists, on the other hand, criticised the objectification of women's bodies in the sex trade, and the unequal power relations between the sexes. They say the sex trade is a microcosm of society, reflecting the biases common in our daily life. At the same time, the trade fuels the inequalities and discrimination. Many sex workers were victims of deception, trafficking and threats, under the control of gangsters and police officers in cahoots. Even those sex workers who appeared to have freely chosen this work in fact had little choice, because of a lack of opportunities.

It should be said that in China, liberal-minded men rarely support feminist causes. In recent years, feminists campaigning against domestic violence and calling for equal opportunities in education and equal rights for sexual minorities have not only received no support from men, they have also been ridiculed and attacked on occasion. Needless to say, CCTV, the government and police officers, too, were not looking out for the women in their crackdown on the sex trade. Perhaps the protection of women is written into the law books but, in reality, prostitution is seen merely as a vice in society. Being branded a prostitute is far more humiliating than being known as a customer who pays for sex. For these women, every crackdown on vice is one more occasion for public humiliation.

The government's purpose isn't even to eliminate the vice. Dongguan's booming sex trade cannot exist without officials' tacit approval. The law is being used as a tool to control the industry and exploit those engaged in it.

Sex scandals were used as a tool to discipline the so-called "Big V" bloggers. In the same way, many suspect, the government is using the prostitution crackdown to keep the trade in line. Dongguan's sex businesses may just be victims of a power struggle. In all of this, the issue of gender equality remains invisible, in official as well as popular media.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese